Well, the wait was certainly worth it as 17,548 footy-starved rugby league fans were treated to a first-round thriller at 1300SMILES Stadium tonight.
The 20-16 North Queensland Toyota Cowboys' win over the Canberra Raiders in golden-point extra time had absolutely everything – beautiful backline plays, crunching hits, stirring charges and a running battle between two hot-under-the-collar teams charging around in the balmy Townsville dusk.
But all of those memorable moments paled in comparison to the game’s dramatic, freakish last play that ended with a Gavin Cooper try to seal the Cowboys’ first win of a new campaign.
With scores locked at 16-all and the game five minutes into golden-point extra time, the Cowboys – spurred on by a vocal crowd baying for a win – were pressing hard to get a match-winning field goal, but the Raiders defence was swarming.
The ball was swinging wildly through hands either side of the goalposts until co-captain and crunch-time maestro Johnathan Thurston somehow squeezed off a rapid fire attempt that cannoned into the crossbar, ballooned up and somehow stopped dead in-goal when landing on the ground.
With most on the field stunned – especially the surrounding Raiders defence – Johnny-on-the-spot Gavin Cooper won the race for the ball to help the Cowboys to an almost surreal win in a game peppered with physicality and no shortage of ill will between the teams.
Raiders prop Clay Priest was at one point sin-binned for 10 minutes after repeated ruck infringements, while the match officials had to put out several spotfires all night.
Barnstorming centre Joey Leilua turned public enemy No.1 after several scuffles with Cowboys players, but he escaped punishment as the Cowboys secured a late win and a perfect start to their new campaign.
Despite tireless co-captain Matt Scott – hospitalised this week with a leg infection – and Jason Taumalolo leading from the front, the Cowboys found themselves behind in the count as former Cowboy and Charters Towers product Zac Santo scooted away following a Leilua break and offload.
The home side responded in a tight first half with the best structured try of the night, with Scott pulling the trigger on a superb over-the-shoulder pass to a supporting Lachlan Coote, who stepped then sped his way over the line.
A 6-all score at the half befitted the tightness of the contest, but it was the visitors who came out of the blocks better, Leilua crossing for the first of his double.
Young tyro Coen Hess wasn’t to be denied down the other end though, the bruising back-rower scoring a try he probably had no right to for his size and strength.
It was Hess’s sixth try in a fledgling 10-game NRL career, while 11-gamer Javid Bowen brought the house down 10 minutes later with a long-range effort where he fended off former under-20s teammate Santo to give the Cowboys a 16-10 lead with six minutes remaining.
Vaudeville villain Leilua, though, had other plans, the big centre scoring his second with three minutes remaining after Bowen fumbled a grubber kicker.
Halfback Aidan Sezer piloted over the extras, sending the game into golden point.
In tense situations, old, cool heads prevail and Cooper kept his to ice a bizarre Cowboys win.
And while there were plenty of memorable cameos – Scott, Coote, Thurston, Hess included – incumbent Dally M medallist Jason Taumalolo was a standout, running for nearly 300 hard-earned metres in the type of Herculean display he won the game’s highest honour for last year.
North Queensland Toyota Cowboys 20 (Lachlan Coote, Javid Bowen, Coen Hess, Gavin Cooper tries; Johnathan Thurston 2 goals) def Canberra Raiders 16 (Joey Leilua 2, Zac Santo tries; Aidan Sezer 2 goals) at 1300SMILES Stadium. Crowd: 17,548.